Report Card

Reprinted from PN January 2010

Compassion and concern for veterans who have served their country form basis of General Eric Shinseki's actions as new Department of Veterans Affairs secretary.

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January 2010 is significant in that it marks the one-year anniversary of the current administration being in office. While many issues on both sides of the political spectrum could engender debate, PVA does not involve itself in partisan political issues.

We take that position intentionally, because we don’t believe care for veterans is a partisan matter. We limit ourselves to one issue only—matters that impact paralyzed veterans. To quote from PVA’s Key Objective, “…take those actions necessary to restore spinal-cord injured or diseased veterans’ bodies and life potentials as closely as is humanly possible to those Americans not suffering spinal-cord dysfunction.” This statement, while brief, covers a broad spectrum of activities that are represented by the programs PVA operates. It is in order, therefore, that we look at how veterans’ issues have been dealt with this last year. In short, we should consider a report card.

In my February 2009 editorial, I addressed the appointment of General Eric Shinseki as Department of Veterans Affairs secretary. I specifically spoke of the challenges facing him. Many parallels exist between Shinseki and General Omar Bradley, the second administrator of VA (then called the Veterans Administration).

Now, for a brief history lesson. After the end of World War II, the huge population of veterans needed medical care; the first VA administrator was a disaster. Under his tenure, VA was characterized as a “vast dehumanized bureaucracy, enmeshed in mountains of red tape, ingrown with entrenched mediocrity, undemocratically operated under autocratic control centered in Washington, prescribing medieval medicine to its sick and disabled wards, highly susceptible to political pressures, rigidly resisted to proposed reforms.” In short, veterans were not cared for. This is also the period when the life expectancy of paralyzed veterans was six months, and PVA’s founders were lobbying vigorously for specialized care for them.

Faced with such a deplorable situation regarding care, President Harry Truman replaced the administrator with a man who had a reputation as the “soldier’s general.” That man was General Omar Bradley. As soon as Bradley returned from his outstanding service in the European Theater of War, Truman appointed him the new VA administrator. In less than two years, Bradley changed VA from a deplorable state rife with scandal to a smoothly functioning medical delivery system.

What are areas of commonality between Bradley and Shinseki? Both served as soldiers in combat tours—not just in name, but by being shot at. They rose through the ranks to the most senior positions in their services: Bradley to four-star general and service as the Army chief of staff in 1948, Shinseki in the rank of four-star general and service as the Army chief of staff in 1999.

They were willing to take positions that placed them in conflict with military leadership over concern about soldiers’ welfare: Bradley with British General Bernard Montgomery, and Shinseki with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Both have compassion for and sincere concerns about the veterans who have served their country. Their leadership styles are also similar in many areas.

So, how do we grade Secretary (General) Shinseki on his performance so far? Under his leadership this last year, VA announced he is determined to make VA the provider of choice for healthcare and has (1) reversed the decision on a new hospital in Denver, which will have a new SCI Clinic, (2) taken steps to shorten the time for decisions on benefit awards, (3) stated a commitment to spinal-cord-injured veterans that is total and complete, (4) changed the relationship between VA and PVA’s Architecture program regarding accessible design, (5) dedicated VA to taking the leadership role and improving electronic health records easily accessible anywhere, (6) taken action to make access to healthcare easier, and (7) moved positively to enhance and construct existing and new SCI Centers.

Secretary Shinseki is so far mirroring General Bradley in his concern about his mission and our nation’s veterans. It is early in his tenure, and we look forward to his being able to accomplish the ambitious—but badly needed—priorities he has identified. He merits a good, solid “B” and can anticipate a higher grade when he carries through and completes his agenda. We pledge our assistance in helping him when we can.


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